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In front of St Damian’s in Bundoora,
Fr Vincent Le Van Huong is showing us the damage from a recent vehicle mishap by one of his parishioners. He peers through his glasses and gestures to the Church. ‘And then I ran in to get anointing oil, before the ambulances arrived,' he says, and his face still a picture of obvious concern.
Just from looking at Fr Vincent Le, you can tell he is a kindly soul. Less obvious is that his story—the journey that took him from Vietnam to Bundoora—is more like something you'd expect to see in the pages of a bestselling novel or blockbuster film.
Fr Vincent Le has worn many different hats during his time at the Archdiocese of Melbourne, starting as a curate at Croydon, as well as being a chaplain to the Vietnamese community in Flemington, a senior formator at the Corpus Christi College and holding various positions as parish priest. He was appointed as parish priest in Bundoora in 2010.
Today, the office of Fr Vincent is filled with artefacts representing a life of faith and wide interests: a beautiful Our Lady of La Vang statue stands by the wall, black and red Bombers scarves hand from his chair, and some of his own hand painted artwork adorns the walls. It is here where Fr Vincent Le tells his journey of becoming a priest in Melbourne.
Fr Vincent's artwork.
His journey starts in 1951, when Vincent Le Van Huong was born in North Vietnam. His family moved to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), South Vietnam in 1954, a year before the Vietnam War broke out. He started his studies at age 11 at St Joseph’s Seminary, and from 1971 to 1974 studied in the Major seminary and did pastoral work, as well as teaching in various Catholic schools.
The Vietnam War ended in 1975, and Vietnam was united under communist rule. New restrictions were placed on seminary study, and Fr Vincent Le was forced to seek employment outside of the Catholic faith. He chose to study acupuncture and became a qualified acupuncturist working in hospitals.
With the new communist regime in Vietnam, for many, it was a time of adjustment and anxiety. Many wanted to leave the country.
Fr Vincent Le made plans to escape. Finally, he left the city in the middle of the night accompanied by two brothers and a cousin. He had paid for safe passage out of the country with small gold bars made from melted rings.
At the time, Fr Vincent had been given leave from the government to travel from Saigon to a coastal town around 200 kilometres away under the auspices of running his own acupuncture clinic. He had no reason to fear government suspicion. Yet the hardships of leaving home were not just about avoiding detection. Fr Vincent recalls his mother with tears in her eyes saying, ‘Go. Look after yourself and your brothers. God will protect you. I pray for you’.
Our Lady of La Vang statue in Fr Vincent's office.
On the night of 14 November 1980, his boat left Vietnam and sailed to Thailand. Despite the lack of space—42 people were crammed into the one boat—Fr Vincent remembers the journey as being quite smooth, with calm waters.
After around two-and-a-half days at sea, the boat left Vietnamese waters and entered international waters. On the third day, they were close to Thailand.
In the mid-70s, pirates from Thailand were common and often preyed on those making their escape from Vietnam. Fr Vincent’s vessel was particularly unfortunate.
‘We were robbed by pirates three times,’ Fr Vincent recalls. ‘The last time there was nothing to steal, as all the valuables had been taken previously. So the pirates took the boat’s engine instead.’ As the engine was removed, Fr Vincent was distraught. It was in the engine he had hidden the gold bars.
Now adrift, Fr Vincent Le begged the pirates to at least tug the boat close to shore, hoping the current would drift them towards land. The pirates had to debate this amongst themselves, Fr Vincent Le later told the Geelong Advertiser. ‘They were scared of being caught by the authorities but eventually, they decided to take us. They put out all the lights, we tied a rope from our boat to theirs and they towed us through the night.’
They made it to Thailand, where they promptly scuttled their engine-less boat, lest they were asked to get back into it. Fr Vincent and his family members were taken to the Songkla Refugee Camp. After many hot and long months, they left in March 1981 and came to Melbourne.
In the 1971 census only 700 Australians reported Vietnam as their birth place. Australia had just abandoned its White Australia Policy, for teh first time allowing people of non-whites and non-European backgrounds to emigrate. In 1981, the number of Australians born in Vietnam was over 40,000 and since that time, the number has grown closer to 180,000.
Fr Vincent Le settled in Melbourne, first working in a wholesale fuit market in Footscray and then at ROH Wheel Assembly Co at Campbellfield. He began to learn English, albeit with an Italian accent, under the instruction of Fr Salvatore Di Mattina at St Mary’s Ascot Vale. By 1983, Fr Vincent saved enough money to repay the boat captain for the fares, after the pirates stole the gold bars.
Fr Vincent's vocation to the priesthood was still a continual nagging presence. Having completed several levels of formation in Vietnam, the soon-to-be Father Vincent was finally invited to enter the Corpus Christi seminary in Clayton, becoming deacon in 1984 (as well as an Australian citizen) and a priest in 1985.
In 2017, a Bombers scarf draped over his office chair, a Bombers team photograph on his door, Fr Vincent Le, kindly soul, now contentedly smiles into our camera.